Indigenous Settlements of Australia
Australia: State of the Environment Second Technical Paper Series (Human Settlements), Series 2
Dr Paul Memmott and Mark Moran
Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001
ISBN 0 642 54790 4
(1) The future economies and social environments of Indigenous settlements
In most of the remote discrete Indigenous settlements of Australia there is a lack of viable working industries and enterprises. In the same regions the non-indigenous economies are often failing, non-existent or inaccessible to Indigenous people. There are a range of mining and cultural tourism projects that are an exception and may represent potential growth areas for future Indigenous employment. However for the most, there is widespread reliance on welfare support and government-funded CDEP programmes (in lieu of unemployment benefits).
A general lack of both economic and recreational facilities is paralleled by increasing problems of substance abuse and violence in Indigenous communities. The quality of life of future generations of Indigenous Australians, particularly in remote discrete settlements represents a critical planning issue in Australia's future.
(2) The ongoing Indigenous health problems
The current inadequacy of housing and settlement infrastructure in settlements has been clearly identified as making a significant contribution to the atrocious national standards of Indigenous health. Although a number of government capital programmes have been implemented in the last decade to address these problems, it will take a much larger budget over many decades before Indigenous people can enjoy the same quality of built environment and health in remote and rural settlements as Australians do in metropolitan centres.
Although some minor housing gains were recorded during the inter-censual period of 1991-1996, the problems of housing need, such as numbers of people in improvised dwellings, overcrowding, family stress and homelessness remain severe (Jones 1999:6,7,40,41). The Indigenous housing backlog identified by politicians in the early 1970s, remains elusively out of reach. Although gains are being made on various fronts, supply of houses seems to barely match population growth. Not only is funding required in Indigenous communities to offset these shortages, but also training and management systems to ensure adequate care and reasonable life expectancy of the physical infrastructure.
(3) The impacts of Native Title on settlement patterns
The re-emerging role of Indigenous people in environmental and land management processes for the first time since the early colonial contact period, is currently occurring as a result of the recognition of Native Title Rights. The impact of existing and spreading human settlements and their populations on the natural environment including river catchments, forests, and coastal areas, as well as on Indigenous sacred sites and heritage places in towns, are all matters related to Native Title Rights. Indigenous groups, through the Native Title process, are negotiating degrees of involvement with all levels of government in environmental-decision making. For example the Quandamooka Land Council of Moreton Bay negotiated a Memorandum of Agreement with the Redland Shire Council in 1997 which has already resulted in a jointly executed "North Stradbroke Island/Minjerribah Planning and Management Study" (LPM Creative Rural Solutions 2000). This study incorporates a number of towns and coastal resorts in the greater Brisbane metropolitan region. Although the Quandamooka Native Title Claim had not at the time of writing, been determined by the Federal Court, the co-operative approach to environmental planning and management has been openly embraced by the Shire Council. Such initiatives are being undertaken in many Indigenous settlements and regions and will increasingly impact on environmental planning processes.
A particular type of impact of Native Title is that on Indigenous settlements themselves, particularly on discrete settlements. Large discrete settlements often have an Indigenous population comprised of (a) a local traditional-owner clan, (b) other traditional-owner clans from the surrounding region, (c) a category made up of the descendants of Indigenous immigrants many of whom may have been forcefully moved to the settlement under government policies of 'protectionism' and 'assimilation'. (d) spouses who have married in to the 'community', and (e) additional families who have migrated more recently since the relaxation of government controls over population movement. The recognition of the Native Title rights of the traditional-owners in the post-Mabo era (post 1992) has re-dressed the distribution of power in such settlements, especially with respect to land use planning and environmental management. Such customary rights may have been suppressed to varying degrees by former governance regimes under the influence of previous government policies. Under such regimes, persons with historical links rather than traditional-owner links to the settlement may have been elevated to Council positions of power. This has added to the often longstanding political tension between such groups in many Indigenous settlements. This situation not only affects settlement governance, but also the use of adjoining country for customary hunting, gathering and fishing by settlement residents, as well as the use of land and natural resources by local councils. All of these activities may now need approval by the traditional-owners of the local area.
(4) The political drive for levels of Indigenous regional autonomy
ATSIC Regional Councils and other Indigenous Regional organizations have for some years been investigating alternate means of achieving greater regional autonomy at the political, administrative, and economic levels. The provision of flexible regional structures to empower Indigenous people in matters that affect their lives and to maintain their distinctive cultures and traditions (ATSIC 1999) is seen as an ultimate goal of the earlier Indigenous policies of 'self-determination' and 'self-management'. Increased control of service delivery will maximize the likelihood that services are consistent with cultural values and are well co-ordinated at the regional level. A key objective is to maximize the participation of Indigenous people in the formulation and implementation of policies at all levels of government that affect them (ATSIC 1999:8).
Methods to achieve this vary from regional agreements or partnerships between Indigenous organizations and existing governments and government agencies (eg. Pearson 2000, Qld Department Premier & Cabinet 2000), to establishing function-specific regional service agencies (Federal Race Discrimination Commissioner 1994; Westbury and Sander 2000), to forming new statutory authorities or similar empowered regional entities such as the recently-formed Torres Strait Regional Authority. During the 21st century it is expected that varying levels of Indigenous regional autonomy will emerge across a number of regions, particularly in remote areas. It is unclear what the impact might be on Indigenous settlements, but such autonomy is expected to alter the range and modes of service delivery methods as well as impact on regional economies.